Are plant-based burgers healthier than meat? (2024)

When you go out for a burger, you face a lot of choices: Fries or onion rings, bun or lettuce wrap, beef patty or veggie burger? Veggie, of course! That’s the healthier choice, right?

Not so fast.

Because while there’s a vegan alternative to just about any meat product from beef burgers and chicken nuggets to hot dogs and breakfast sausages, the nutritional content may not be quite what you were hoping for.

“People think that if it’s plant-based, it’s healthy or healthier, and that certainly can be, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be,” says D. Julian McClements, PhD, a distinguished professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose research focuses on plant-based foods. “It really depends on [if] the company [is] designing it correctly.”

What’s in plat-based meat?

The global alternative meat, or meat analogue, industry is vast—valued at $18.78 billion in 2023 and projected to nearly double by 2032.

Traditional veggie burgers are typically made of beans and vegetables that get mashed and pressed into a patty, allowing you to often see the whole foods—black beans, lentils, corn, chickpeas—that make up these products. But newer meat analogues, the most famous brands being Beyond and Impossible, much more closely resemble the meats they mimic than the distant plant cousins—pea protein for Beyond, soy for Impossible—from which their ingredients are aggressively extracted.

“These are definitely ultra-processed products,” says McClements. “Ultra-processed can mean that something is less healthy for you, but it can also mean that it’s healthier than the alternative.”

Is plant-based meat good for you?

The more closely meat alternatives mimic real meat, the more processed they likely are. And that’s where you might run into problems.

For starters, ultra-processing can rob otherwise good-for-you foods of their nutritional value. When whole foods are broken down and forced into other forms—whether it’s a corn chip or a soy patty—a lot of their natural fiber is lost, according to the American Medical Association. Lower-fiber foods digest more quickly, which causes a blood sugar spike and also doesn’t leave you feeling as satisfied as whole, unprocessed foods do. That’s ok for a treat now and then. But diets high in ultra-processed foods can lead to overeating, obesity, and diabetes.

That’s the problem with any ultra-processed food. Fake meats in particular can have other problems.

To make these meatless burgers greasy like a beef burger, you need fat, which usually comes in the form of added sunflower, coconut, or canola oil. That helps explain why some burger lookalikes have as much—and sometimes more—saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels, as a frozen all-beef patty. And they may log five times as much sodium. They also contain carbs, which can raise blood sugar, although some of those carbs are fiber, which is a good thing and an area where meat falls short. They tend to pack just as many calories as beef patties, too—about 2 to 2.5 calories per gram or 200 calories per 3.5-ounce patty.

“You have to know what’s in them and compare them to what you’d be replacing,” says Judy Simon, RD, a dietitian in the Nutrition Clinic at UW Medical Center in Seattle.

While side-by-side comparisons with plain frozen beef patties from your grocer’s freezer don’t differ much, these plant-based products may deliver a good bit less sodium and sugar than a hamburger from the major fast food chains, which might make them a wise option when eating out as opposed to cooking at home, if it is salt and sugar you are trying to avoid. Just beware, they don’t promise to save you any calories and, surprisingly, may contain even more fat.

What does the science say about plant-based meat?

Scientific research gives faux meat mixed reviews.

In a small November 2020 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers tracked a group of 36 adults for 16 weeks. For eight weeks, they had two servings of meat per day, such as pork, hamburgers, sausage and ground beef. For the other eight weeks, they had two daily servings of the Beyond brand counterpart instead of meat. Half the group did the meat diet first; the other half went veg first. Then they switched. Everything else stayed the same over the four months, including daily exercise and overall calorie intake. Still, during the eight-week fake meat diet, most people lost weight and saw a drop in their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

But more recent studies haven’t been so positive.

A 2024 study took the same eight-week approach. Only this time, it included 82 people. Half ate from a predetermined menu of meats the whole time. The other half ate the veggie version of each of those meats from various brands, including Impossible, Beyond, and others. The researchers checked everyone’s weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and other health markers at the beginning and the end.

The people in the plant-based group didn’t come out any better in the end than their meat-eating counterparts.

But coming out “better” is not exactly the point of these burger lookalikes, says Sunil Chandran, Chief Scientific Officer at Impossible Foods.

“Our products are not intended to be salads or veggie burgers,” he says. “Everything we make is designed to replicate the full sensory and nutritional experience of eating meat that meat-lovers crave, and more often than not, classic veggie burgers aren’t hitting the mark for these folks. Our goal is to offer a better option for meat eaters who are looking to incorporate more plant-based foods, but don’t want to change their lifestyle so drastically.”

Meat analogues don’t seem to help with inflammation, either. Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers, and past research has suggested that a meat-heavy diet causes inflammation. More recent research is shifting away from that conclusion, but researchers are still asking whether alt meats can counter inflammation.

A small 2022 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says no. In it, the same 36 adults from the 2020 study showed very little difference in inflammation levels after eight weeks on alt meats and eight weeks on beef.

The good news is: You have choices. If health is a concern, you have to look beyond the “plant-based” branding and read the label. Go for the options with more fiber and less sugar, fat and sodium.

Beyond Meat recently announced that they’ve reformulated their burger and ground beef alternatives to replace coconut and canola oils with avocado oil, bringing the saturated fat content down by 60% to just 2 grams per serving. The new formulation, scheduled to arrive in supermarkets in June, also cuts sodium by 20%.

“It’s important to note that our products are similar to or lower in sodium than plain ground beef once you add salt or a seasoning blend [to plain ground beef], which most people do during the cooking process,” says Joy Bauer, RDN, nutrition advisor to Beyond Meat.

The changes to the formula, she says, “have garnered recognition from the American Diabetes Association, which certified our products as part of their ‘Better Choices for Life’ program, and the American Heart Association, which certified a collection of heart-healthy recipes featuring our products.”

Impossible, too, offers options with a better nutrition profile than its standout Impossible Burger, like Lite Beef, which also got a nod from the American Heart Association. “But not only is it a healthier product, it still tastes as meaty and delicious as lean animal beef – proving that heart-healthy choices don’t necessarily have to be less flavorful,” Chandran says.

“A majority of our meat products contain at least 25% less total fat and saturated fat compared to the animal [product],” Chandran says. “And because our meat is made from plants, our products are higher in intrinsic fiber content than animal meat.”

It’s also important to note that a plant-based diet has been shown to lower the risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, dementia, depression, and some cancers—but just be sure to opt for whole foods over processed as often as possible.

Too soon to tell

Sugar, fat, sodium, calories, inflammation—all the devil you know. But meat analogues may also introduce a devil that even food and nutrition experts don’t know about yet.

“We’ve been grinding up meat and making hamburgers for a hundred years,” says Youling Xiong, PhD, a professor of food and animal sciences at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “But we just don’t have enough data to assess everything related to long-term consumption of plant-based meats.”

Nobody knows the potential health consequences of the new ingredients and processes that are unique to alt meats.

“People don’t recognize the incredible complexity of creating these products,” McClements says. “Using plants to make something that looks or tastes exactly like meat is incredibly challenging and requires all sorts of biology, chemistry, and physics.”

Impossible Foods, for example, pioneered the use of plant heme—an iron-rich molecule found in every living thing—to beef up the taste and smell of its burgers. In real meat, heme comes from hemoglobin found in blood. In Impossible meat, it comes from leghemoglobin found in legumes, specifically soy, from which Impossible derives heme in its manufacturing plants.

“With plant hemoglobin, it behaves more or less the same as a meat product, and that’s what makes it go from red to brown when you cook it,” McClements says.

Thanks to plant heme, at first glance, sniff, and maybe even first bite, an Impossible burger might fool even the most ardent carnivore.

“It’s a genetically engineered product that we just don’t have enough history on to know whether, for example, people are going to be sensitive to it or just whether it’s OK,” Simon says.

Future impact

But plant-based meat substitutes still do measurable good. Their manufacture uses less water and land, causes less water and air pollution, and produces fewer greenhouse gasses than meat production. They have about half the environmental impact of real meat.

“Animal production cannot sustain the world’s population or the world climate,” Xiong says. “But plants we can grow, so sustainability is a driving force of this market.”

As the plant-based protein market continues to grow, and processing advances, experts expect you’ll have healthier choices, too.

“In the past, food scientists designed foods to be delicious, convenient, and affordable,” McClements says. “But this next generation of plant-based foods is where we’re trying to design health and sustainability as well.”

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Are plant-based burgers healthier than meat? (2024)

FAQs

Are plant-based burgers healthier than meat? ›

Now, for the bad news. Although plant-based burgers do not contain red meat, they have a similar number of calories and saturated fat content. They may also contain more sodium than traditional red meat beef burgers.

Why are plant-based meats not as healthy? ›

New research shows that although plant-based meat products are generally healthier than meat equivalents, they can be higher in sugar and are often lacking important nutrients found in real meat.

What are the disadvantages of plant-based meat? ›

As some plant-based meat and mock meat products are created to replicate animal meat, they may undergo more processing. This leads to a high content of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.

Are Impossible burgers healthier than beef? ›

The Impossible Burger can be a sustainable alternative to regular burgers and does contain higher amounts of several important nutrients, including vitamin B12, folate, and thiamine (3, 4 , 5 ). However, the Impossible Burger contains more sodium than regular ground beef and is lower in some vitamins and minerals.

Is it better to eat meat or plant-based? ›

And people who don't eat meat, called vegetarians, generally eat fewer calories and less fat. They also tend to weigh less. And they have a lower risk of heart disease than nonvegetarians do. Research shows that people who eat red meat are at a higher risk of death from heart disease, stroke or diabetes.

Is it OK to eat plant-based meat everyday? ›

Data from the article shows that regularly consuming these ultra-processed plant-based meats could potentially lead to higher calorie, fat and salt intake.

Why can't you eat plant-based meat raw? ›

“In reality, plants often harbor high levels of foodborne pathogens and, as such, plant-based burgers should be considered and handled just like for example, raw ground beef,” said Luchansky's research partner Anna Porto-Fett, microbiologist at ERRC.

What are the long term effects of plant-based meats? ›

Some plant-based meats contain relatively high amounts of salts, which may also be a health concern because elevated salt levels in the diet can increase the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, kidney disease, and stomach cancer.

What are the negative effects of plant-based food? ›

Cons
  • Fresh produce can be very perishable, so buy just as much as you need to minimize waste.
  • Possibly a protein-deficient diet. ...
  • Possibly deficient in certain nutrients such as iron calcium, and B12. ...
  • If you decide to go vegetarian or vegan, it could be challenging to give up eating animals.

Are Beyond burgers healthy? ›

The new Beyond Burger significantly improves that health profile. It has 10 percent of the recommended intake of saturated fat and 14 percent of the recommended intake of sodium. A single patty has 230 calories, which is the same as the outgoing burger. For comparison, a Kroger-brand 80/20 beef patty has 290 calories.

Are meatless burgers better for you? ›

Interestingly, the plant based burgers may not be the best choice for people following a heart-healthy diet, as they are higher in saturated fat than turkey burgers and contain substantially more sodium than lean beef burgers.

Do vegans live longer than meat-eaters? ›

While there is some scientific research to suggest that going vegan and eating less animal protein can help to prevent diseases, the evidence is still lacking in terms of cold, hard numbers on longevity in particular. However, this doesn't mean that a vegan diet won't help you live longer.

What happens if you don't eat meat for 2 weeks? ›

You may feel tired and weak if you cut meat out of your diet. That's because you're missing an important source of protein and iron, both of which give you energy. The body absorbs more iron from meat than other foods, but it's not your only choice.

What happens to your body when you go plant-based? ›

Plants are high in fiber.

Eating a plant-based diet improves the health of your gut so you are better able to absorb the nutrients from food that support your immune system and reduce inflammation. Fiber can lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar and it's great for good bowel management.

Why plant-based meat failed? ›

So what went wrong? Some experts believe that plant-based meat's error may be the exact thing that was supposed to make it popular: its attempt to be indistinguishable from meat. Alternative “meats” are nothing new.

Why are plants healthier than meat? ›

Why plant-based? It supports your immune system. Plants have essential nutrients that you cannot get from other foods. The vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants in plants help keep your cells healthy and your body in balance so that your immune system can function at its best.

What chemicals are in plant-based meat? ›

“5 Chemicals Lurking in Plant-Based Meats”:
  • Tertiary butylhydroquinone. TBHQ is a synthetic preservative that prevents discoloration in processed foods. ...
  • Magnesium carbonate. Remember when some bread was accused of having a yoga mat chemical? ...
  • Erythosine (Red #3). ...
  • Propylene glycol. ...
  • Ferric orthophosphate.
Feb 12, 2020

Why is it OK to eat plants but not meat? ›

The main difference is that animals have central nervous systems that make them capable of feeling pain, happiness, excitement, sadness, and more. It is an important fact that plants have no central nervous system, which indicates an inability to suffer.

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